When it comes to virtual desktops, Microsoft has earned a reputation as reactive, in denial and interested only in continuing its Windows PC cash flow. But next week the company will disclose plans it hopes will show IT managers that it's not as obstructionist as all that.
Microsoft's change of heart in support of desktop virtualization includes big changes to its per-device licensing model, in favor of per-user licensing, and improvements to its Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to better support multimedia, streaming audio and rich media applications, sources said.
"Microsoft knows its desktop virtualization licensing is a problem, and they know they have to address it now," said Dave Sobel, a Microsoft virtualization MVP and CEO of Evolve Technologies, an IT services firm in Fairfax, Va.
Though Sobel could not share specifics about the next-generation RDP because of a nondisclosure agreement, he said Microsoft continues to add features that were previously provided through third-party partnerships. Microsoft released RDP Version 7 less than a year ago, but it still needed to improve graphics capabilities and streaming media performance to compete against VMware and Citrix's protocols, he said.
Microsoft provided no comment regarding its licensing and RDP improvements, but said the company's official statements surrounding virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) will be made via webcast at 9 a.m. PT on March 18.
RDP performance is crucial to Microsoft's success in desktop virtualization. The protocol is fine now for small tasks, but not good enough for detailed graphics or video. IT shops and vendors have fussed over this problem for years.
"Why did both Citrix and VMware put so much time, effort and expense into other protocols? Because RDP is a bottleneck," said Tony Wilburn, who uses desktop virtualization software and consults for Betis Group Inc., an IT services firm.
Aside from making gradual improvements to RDP, Microsoft has done little with desktop virtualization. It has XP Mode in Windows 7, which lets end users run different OS environments on one desktop, and application virtualization technology through App-V, which only customers with Software Assurance agreements can purchase through the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) as part of Windows desktop licensing. Of course, it also has Remote Desktop Services, the new version of Terminal Services, as part of the Windows Server license.
Calista finally bears fruit
Two years ago, Microsoft acquired Calista Technologies, a company that was developing an accelerated frame buffer capture and compression technology to be used with RDP. Desktop virtualization experts predicted that Microsoft would use the technology to advance RDP in the same way Citrix enhanced its ICA (now called HDX) protocol, instead of relying so much on Citrix Systems, its close partner in the virtual desktop game.
Microsoft is less reliant on Citrix for virtualization in general now that it has its own hypervisor, Hyper-V R2, and its own application virtualization delivery model, App-V. An improved protocol will help Microsoft deliver a similar end -user experience that customers receive using Citrix and rival VMware protocols HDX and PCoIP, respectively.
Microsoft wants to beat its bitter rival, VMware, but it will also compete with Citrix because the old value-add that Citrix once provided is long gone, said Michael Roth, a desktop delivery expert and author of the ThinComputing.Net blog. "Calista will bring RDP closer to PCoIP, if not at the same level," he said.
One of Microsoft's partners said the competitive technology that Microsoft plans to disclose this month may not beat Citrix or VMware's products, but it will certainly compete and rattle the market.
Jeff McNaught, a strategy officer at Wyse Technology, a thin-client manufacturer, said Microsoft will do its usual maneuvering by offering a lower-cost product to its massive customer base to challenge the incumbent market leaders.
And by making an impact in desktop virtualization, Microsoft will be able to control what happens around the desktops, particularly as the technology becomes more widespread, Roth explained.
In addition to helping Microsoft compete against Citrix and VMware, improving RDP will help those competitors, too. For instance, VMware brokering an improved RDP should lead to more View sales, said Shannon Snowden, a desktop virtualization consultant at Louisville, Ky.-based New Age Technologies Inc.
And Citrix positions itself as a value-add vendor to whatever Microsoft produces. "So, if Microsoft were to improve their RDP dramatically, Citrix would find ways to add features and performance above and beyond what it does, just like they have for years," Snowden said. "Each will spin it to their own benefit, but I think everyone wins in this situation."
Softening on virtual desktop licensing
Microsoft's Virtual Enterprise Centralized Desktop (VECD) has troubled virtual desktop users and vendors because the policy made it expensive to license Windows for virtual desktops. The company last month said it would address the problem this year.
Roth said Microsoft's motive for lowering license prices is for its own benefit. "You can bet on it that they will only lower it if they have an offering that is competitive with VMware's," he said. "They might even lower it only for Microsoft VDI customers."
Wilburn spoke for many IT pros when he said he would like to see the entire VECD licensing scheme scrapped entirely. "I want licensing to be simple. No VECD license, no separate license depending if you have an SLA or not," he said. "If I buy a Windows 7 license ... let me use that instance of Windows 7 whether I have it installed locally, attach to it remotely with a PC or thin client running Windows or Linux, [or] have it running on vSphere, XenServer, or Hyper-V."
However Microsoft plays it, one thing is for certain; the company will remain wedded to retaining the "stickiness" of Windows and to keeping MDOP stocked with tools valuable to the management of Windows, according to Mark Margevicius, a research director at Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy Gartner Inc.